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Film and the Arts

Off-Broadway Review—“Downtown Race Riot” with Chloe Sevigny

Downtown Race Riot

Written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; directed by Scott Elliott

Performances through December 23, 2017

 

Chloe Sevigny and David Levi in Downtown Race Riot (photo: Monique Carboni)

In Downtown Race Riot, Seth Zvi Rosenfeld turns cartoons into real characters: with a huge assist from a talented cast and director, of course. But to what end? Nearly two hours of watching a drug-addled mom, her equally damaged children and her son’s friends and acquaintances meander through their mundane existence—culminating with a violent brawl—bring the audience no insight or point.

 

Mary, a 39-year-old single mom, lives in a West Village railroad apartment with two children by different men: 21-year-old Joyce and 18-year-old Jimmy, known as PNut. Mary has trouble keeping clean, collects disability checks and has a lawyer on the way to discuss suing the city for giving PNut asthma by his eating paint chips when he was younger (which he never did). PNut and his best friend, a Haitian black named Marcel, aka Massive, plan to go to Washington Square Park for an upcoming fight between neighborhood toughs and minority interlopers from other parts of the city. Joyce, though nominally a lesbian, seduces Massive when she comes home, in part to get back at her brother and especially her mom, who she feels cares more for PNut than Joyce.

 

Rosenfeld draws sympathetic but realistic portraits of his play’s inhabitants, even the “tough” Jay 114 and Jimmy-Sick, or Mary’s coke-snorting lawyer Bob, all of whom initially seem like refugees from Mean Streets or The Sopranos, but are humanized by the writing and acting. Still, the play and these people don’t go anywhere unsurprising: they are fated to remain behind, thanks to class or race, which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation.

 

Derek McLane’s tremendous set of Mary’s shabby apartment is arrestingly lit by Yael Lubetzky. Scott Elliott’s fluid direction allows the supremely confident performers to play off one another convincingly, whether Cristian Demeo and Daniel Sovich’s amusing would-be wise guys, Moise Morancy’s charming Massive, Josh Pais’s overanxious Bob, Sadie Scott’s tantalizingly ambivalent Joyce, or David Levi’s flailing PNut.

 

Chloe Sevigny’s Mary is scarily authentic, whether in her pathetic attempts to hide her drug habit—even when she slinks off to her bed, where she holds forth to PNut, Joyce and Massive—or while slinking around in shorts and a halter top (perfectly ugly ‘70s costuming by Clint Ramos) to entice Bob. It’s a marvelously physical performance that makes her character and the play she’s in seem substantial.

 

Downtown Race Riot

The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

thenewgroup.org

December '17 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

Dolores Claiborne

Doc Hollywood

(Warner Archive)

1995’s Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King’s novel and starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with disturbingly dark skeletons, was directed by Taylor Hackford with stylish ostentation, which fits the strangely compelling material.

 

 

1991’s Doc Hollywood, an amiable fish-out-of-water comedy, has a prime starring role for Michael J. Fox as a fresh-faced doctor who finds himself stuck in a small southern town, and who meets a charming young woman (Julie Warner, a delightful actress who unfortunately didn’t do much else in her career). Both films have first-rate hi-def transfers; Dolores includes a Hackford commentary.

 

Bat Pussy

(AGFA/Something Weird)

As if the title wasn’t enough of a clue, this supposedly infamous but mainly forgotten attempt at a porn flick from the classic early ‘70s era riffs on one of our favorite superheroes, but its ineptitude is about all it has going for it.

 

 

It’s as if Ed Wood tried to make an X-rated film: that no one knows who made it and who’s in it adds a miniscule modicum of mystery that surrounds this curio. Extras are a commentary and bonus movie, 1971’s Robot Love Slaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deathdream 

(Blue Underground)

With a title like that, you’d expect a chintzy B movie, and although that’s basically what it is, director Bob Clark provides unsettling creepiness to this queasy tale of a soldier apparently killed in Vietnam who returns home and slowly becomes a zombie.

 

 

Of course, it’s a metaphor for how soldiers were treated both in country and at home; what’s surprising is how effectively it works, even with committed but spotty acting. There’s an acceptable hi-def transfer; extras include commentaries, interviews and featurette.

 

Ruby

Satan’s Cheerleaders

(VCI)

1976’s torpid horror flick Ruby came out the same year as Carrie; that both star Piper Laurie as the loony mother of a disturbed teenage girl is their main similarity. Unlike Carrie’s slick schlockiness, Curtis Harrington’s film is hackneyed, haphazard, and B-movie all the way. 

 

 

Satan’s Cheerleaders, Greydon Clark’s 1977 tease flick, also has little to recommend it, even for viewers on the lookout for T&A amid its typical scares. Amateurish performances, even from sleepwalking Yvonne DeCarlo and John Carradine, don’t help. Both films have decent hi-def transfers; Ruby extras include commentaries and interviews, and Cheerleaders extras comprise commentaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DVDs of the Week 

Happy Hour

(Icarus)

I’d never seen anything by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, so to come cold to his five-hour, seventeen-minute opus about a quartet of 30ish women friends dealing with their quotidian lives is at first off-putting, then—very slowly—entrancing.

 

 

Hamaguchi allows his film, and its characters, to breathe, and if there are certain static longueurs—one sequence at an author’s reading could be excised—there’s also an appreciation and understanding of life in all its ordinariness: and extraordinariness. The superlative acting matches the creator’s humanism.

 

Exhibition On Screen: Michelangelo Love and Death

(Seventh Art)

In presenting the several decade-long career of one of the Renaissance’s—and history’s—greatest masters, this 90-minute documentary overview hits all the expected beats (sculpture, architecture, poetry, Sistine Chapel ceiling) as it combines expert discussion with close-up views of the works that give occasional insight into his method and madness.

 

 

As always with Exhibition On Screen, there’s a caveat: releasing this only on DVD, not Blu-ray, is a mistake, since these precious artistic treasures should be seen solely in hi-def.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CD of the Week 

Blackmore’s Night—Winter Carols

(Minstrel Hall)

Guitarist extraordinaire Ritchie Blackmore teams with his wife, singer/recorder player Candice Night, for an enjoyable journey through music of the holiday season. Don’t expect Rainbow Does Christmas, however: in these folky-cum-Renaissance Faire arrangements, Blackmore’s tasty acoustic playing beautifully complements Night’s lovely vocals on evergreen titles such as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “We Three Kings.”

 

 

First released in 2006, this re-release include three songs not included on the original; a second disc (from a 2013 re-issue) has several tunes recorded live, along with various versions—including one in German—of Night singing a Yuletide original, “Christmas Eve.”

Broadway Review—“The Parisian Woman” with Uma Thurman

The Parisian Woman

Written by Beau Willimon; directed by Pam Mackinnon

Performances through March 11, 2018

 

Uma Thurman and Marton Csokas in The Parisian Woman (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The Trump era will undoubtedly beget other plays about what his election wrought, but Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, an updated rewriting of Henry Becque’s 1885 French comedy La Parisienne, and concerning the high-society wife of a well-connected Washington lawyer who wants a hoped-for judgeship from the new president, gets a head start.

 

There are disparaging references to Trump’s predilection for Twitter and his listening to the last person he saw in this tidy but static one-act drama that’s a slight disappointment from a writer whose political bona fides were brought to bear with the play Farragut North (which became the George Clooney film The Ides of March) and the Netflix series House of Cards. Willimon writes literate dialogue with acid dripping from it, but his cardboard characters’ machinations do little more than provide for the audience’s amusement and also, finally, bemusement.

 

It’s obviously how Washington operates—we witness the nastiness behind the scenes—but The Parisian Woman doesn’t so much illuminate as show it, so we see the results without much insight. Chloe, liberal wife of conservative tax lawyer Tom, is first seen with middle-aged banker Peter, with whom she’s having an affair (the spouses apparently have a no-talk policy about extracurricular activities). Peter’s undying love gives her the upper hand when she needs a favor: for Peter to whisper in the president’s ear about her husband’s availability for the court vacancy.

 

Also used by Chloe is Jeanette, Trump’s pick to lead the Federal Reserve (and seemingly modeled after Janet Yellen, the current Fed chairman), a D.C. veteran who becomes a close confidant of Chloe’s, at least until she realizes that her own daughter Rebecca—a recent Harvard law grad with a bright political future ahead of her—has become a willing pawn in Chloe’s game.

 

Much of the play consists of conversations in three locations—Chloe and Tom’s living room; the balcony of Jeanette’s home; and a ritzy restaurant (the stylish sets are by Derek McLane)—and director Pam Mackinnon has trouble sustaining the forward motion of a play that sits around for much of its length. That it’s only 90 minutes helps, and the final scene climaxes with another Trump allusion that’s a well-timed punch line.

 

Josh Lucas (Tom), Marton Csokas (Peter), Philippa Soo (Rebecca) and Blair Brown (Jeanette) give persuasive support, although Brown often barks too much like a bitchy Elaine Stritch. Making a smashing Broadway debut is Uma Thurman, whose Chloe is self-confident, shrewd, smart-looking and impossibly elegant (Jane Greenwood did the dead-on costumes): even how she lounges while sipping Sancerre is charming. Thurman makes The Parisian Woman look better than it really is.

 

The Parisian Woman

Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY

ParisianWomanBroadway.com

Classical Music Review—Barbara Hannigan at Park Avenue Armory, on CD/DVD/Blu-ray

Barbara Hannigan

November 18, 2017

 

Barbara Hannigan performing Satie at Park Avenue Armory

Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan is no stranger to daring programs, which she proves again with her recent stunning Erik Satie recital at the Park Avenue Armory, a new CD of music by George Gershwin, Alban Berg and Luciano Berio, and a concert Blu-ray of her singing more Berg and another of her contemporary favorites, Gyorgy Ligeti.

 

At the Armory, Hannigan paired with estimable pianist Reinbert de Leeuw for two programs. I missed the first, of songs by the Second Viennese School, but the second, of works by Satie—the minimalist French master best-known for his elegant miniatures Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes—was revelatory not only in performance but in the presentation.

 

As the audience waited outside the Armory’s intimate Board of Officers Room, the doors opened, de Leeuw began playing Satie’s ballet Uspud, and Hannigan walked barefoot through the crowd holding a candle. After she entered the room, the audience followed, taking seats arrayed around the piano. (The semi-darkness hampered some from taking their seats promptly and properly: one unfortunate soul tripped and fell.) As de Leeuw finished his crisp reading of the half-hour work, Hannigan walked up to a second-level balcony overlooking the room where she began singing Satie’s masterly Socrate—originally written for four female voices—and she simply mesmerized everyone in the room, acting out the quartet of characters, including Socrates, in this astonishing 40-minute work.

 

Hannigan’s dramatic intensity was evident throughout the performance; she stalked, walked, climbed all over the stage, even turning the pianist’s music pages, and it was impossible to look away from her, whatever she was doing. Too bad some of her most memorable moments while on the balcony were missed by audience members seated with their back to her.

 

If you’ve never seen Hannigan live, a Blu-ray release of her 2015 performance with the London Symphony Orchestra is available on the LSO Live label. Hannigan’s typical focus—encompassing richly detailed singing and magnetic stage presence—as she performs Berg’s Fragments from “Wozzeck” and Ligeti’s spectacularly nonsensical Mysteries of the Macabre (the latter she sings in a ridiculously silly/sexy get-up) shows off the soprano at her bewitching best, complemented by the LSO and conductor Simon Rattle, who also play Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky.

 

Hannigan's Crazy Girl Crazy CD

Hannigan herself is conductor on her latest CD, Crazy Girl Crazy, on the Alpha Classics label, in which she collaborates with the Ludwig Orchestra on a new arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl Crazy suite, Berg’s suite from his opera Lulu (I’d love to have the chance to see Hannigan take on that challenging role), and Berio’s wordless pyrotechnic exercise, Sequenza III. Hannigan of course easily traverses this wide-ranging program, her impassioned takes on Gershwin and Berg as impressive as her coughing, whispering, shrieking Berio gymnastics. A great bonus is a DVD of French actor Mathieu Amalric’s short film about Hannigan at work, Music is Music, which provides a further visual component to Hannigan’s dazzling artistry.

 

Barbara Hannigan

Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY

armoryonpark.org

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